Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Steinhatchee, land of no-see-ums ... continuing the voyage ...

At 0730, April 12th, we weighed anchor at Atsena Otie Key just across from Cedar Key, hoisted our mainsail and followed the rest of the Dolphins Cruising Club pod out the channel bound for Steinhatchee (pronounced Steenhatchie), about a 53 nautical mile trip.  Once on the gulf and heading northwest, the wind unexpectedly picked up to 20 plus knots and we were on a close haul.  Blustery and wet, and Alizee, with a much lower free board that our friends on the Island Packets, shipped a lot of water over the port rail, at one point so much that I lost a sandal off the stern.  Damn/spit!  I'd just bought that new pair of Tevas and completely forgotten that I'd left them sitting behind the cockpit.  We should have reefed, but we were bound and determined to keep up with the pod, so we weathered the wind.

This actually is the sort of thing I don't like about so-called "buddy boating."  One feels almost obligated to stay with the other boats, and I suspect more often than not to the detriment of good seamanship and perhaps safety.  Indeed, there's a false sense of security in it all.  And, the truth is in our experience on this trip and on others, if a buddy boat seems to have problems, stopping, veering of course, or falling far behind, you don't hear radio calls asking if everything is all right.  In the end you really are own your own and when you do share radio chatter it's generally innocuous. 

But I digress.  Quite simply, we violated our own reefing rules because we knew that we would be running off our Raymarine electronic chart before we reached the reputedly shallow three-some-mile long Steinhatchee channel, and I preferred to have other boats in sight when that happened.  In any event, the blustery conditions only lasted for a couple of hours, the winds lightened up and we found ourselves following Purpose down the channel, eyes glued to the depth sounder.  Turns out because we were coming in on a relatively high tide there was excellent depth, quite contrary to the advice found in Dozier's Waterway Guide. At any rate, we found our way up to the Sea Hag Marina, spun a 180 turn and slid masterfully into our assigned end tie on a finger dock, stern to stern with Dragonfly. 

Once docked, I immediately pulled out my paper charts and began entering in way points on the chartplotter for the next day's sail.  This extra effort, of course, was my own fault.  I simply assumed that my Navionics chip covered the entire Gulf Coast of Florida, so I didn't check.  Beyond a certain point, three-fourths of the way from Cedar Key to Steinhatchee, all the data disappeared leaving a screen image that sort of depicted where land masses were but nothing else (see photo).  Hence, I'd be navigating the Big Bend and all that notoriously shallow water with a paper chart and essentially a GPS.  Later, when I was telling Doug Clapp on Purpose about this and that I needed to get Navionic's west coast chip, which absurdly also covers the Gulf of Mexico, Doug pointed out that the new Navionics chip covers the whole country and more; mine is very outdated.  Don't you just hate it, when something you got just four years ago is "very outdated"?  Indeed, after the trip and when we got back to our home in Deland, I discovered on the Raymarine site that my C-80 chartplotter has been retired, too.  Damn/spit again! 

After I got my way points charted, we adjourned to join the pod on Mark and Jill Bridge's Dragonfly, where we had cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.  It was supposed to be a sort of captains meeting to decide the plan for the next day, but the drinking, chatter and conch horn blowing left no room for a real meeting.  When we departed, the only thing we knew for sure is that it was dark and that we were departing at 0930, which was fine with us because we were bushed.  We also discovered, while sitting in Dragonfly's cockpit, Steinhatchee's secret scourge: no-see-ums by the hordes, which in the way of no-see-ums didn't really make themselves felt until the next morning when the welts started to appear.

We returned to Alizee whilst everyone else decided to walk a few blocks to a local restaurant for dinner.  We were so tired that, although we prepped dinner, we just stuck everything in the refrigerator and went to bed with visions of a morning shower (the last one we'd had was four days before).  Unbeknownst to us, the pod had changed all their plans at dinner, and while Mark was delegated to call us with the news - which he did, but we were asleep - we did not discover the change until Mark knocked on our boat at 0-dark-thirty!  "We're leaving at 0700," he said apologetically, to which I gruffly and unkindly replied: "Well, maybe you are."  They had decided not to go on to St. Marks, but to push the extra overall ten nautical miles to Dog Island, just near Carabelle.  We looked at the weather because we knew a front was supposed to come through, and we decided to skip the showers and push on with everyone else.

But, what about Steinhatchee?  This was a spot we'd really wanted to see.  Sea Hag Marina was a classic 'old Florida' spot, and we'd looked forward to wandering around Steinhatchee for a day or so.  Well, in fact, on our way back from Apalachicola we got the chance to wander around the town famous for fishing tournaments, scallop harvesting and its February Fiddler Crab Festival (doesn't every town everywhere have a festival ... my favorite is the Gilroy Garlic Festival).  On Friday, April 20, we retraced the steps we'd made with the pod to Dog Island, and made an eight-hour sail back to Steinhatchee and to the Sea Hag, where we docked on the same finger pier, this time stern to stern with a trawler from Alabama, captained by David Keller.  The docking wasn't quite as smooth, because the marina staff insisted I go stern to stern with the trawler and their handling of the lines was not very carefully done - they used the end of the finger pier as a fulcrum to pull Alizee around and into position, and because the pier's rub rail was nonexistent, I'll be spending a couple of hundred bucks touching up the awl grip on the port side.  I was too kind in letting them off the hook; I thought perhaps they'd comp us a night or so, but they chose not to be generous (my only complaint about Sea Hag Marina, which actually is the cheapest transient docking around).

Once again, weather decided what we'd be doing for a couple of days.  This time it kept us in Steinhatchee for four nights and three days, and we dreaded the idea because of the no-see-ums.  On our first night we envisioned being stuck down in the cabin from sun-up to sun-down, but the front moving through turned out to be our savior. Cool air and steady breezes kept the gnats, as the locals call them, away from us, and I think we managed to get away with only two or three bites each.

What a time we had in Steinhatchee.  Turns out we were lucky to get dock space, for the Sea Hag was sponsoring one of many of its big fishing tournaments that weekend.  On Friday night, when we arrived, we made our way up to the fish cleaning station, where we struck up a conversation with a couple of "old timers" (actually they were a couple of years younger than me), and had a grand time swapping fish stories, finding out local fishing hints and watching a fellow clean a rather large shark - a first for us.  Penelope, who is a master at fileting the fish we catch on Alizee, also really enjoyed watching fishermen fileting their fish with electric knives.  (She discovered you can get a twelve-volt electric fileting knife, but so far she hasn't mentioned it again.)

On Saturday morning a beehive of activity started before dawn, and scores and scores of boats streamed out to the gulf for the next couple of hours, reminding us of the morning commute by our house in Deland.  We relaxed during the day, got showers at the marina and took a short walk.  I also found a couple of number two planers at the Sea Hag Marina tackle store, which I added to our collection along with a new t-shirt for myself.  Then we settled in to watch the fishermen flood back in before the cold front, for we had dinner plans.  At the tackle store, I also had discovered that Fiddler's Restaurant, about two miles east of the marina, would send a car to pick us up for dinner, so we made arrangements for dinner around 1800.  Fortuitously, the town liquor store was right next door to Fiddler's, so after a great dinner, we shored up our liquor supply and got a ride back to Alizee.    

The next morning saw fewer boats going out.  The front continued building and by afternoon would be really coming through, so once the boats were on there way out for a morning of fishing, we decided to walk to the grocery, about a mile away.  A nice walk and a really good look at a pretty swath of Steinhatchee.  I told Penelope that if it wasn't for the no-see-ums, this would be a great place to live.  She's was not as enchanted by that idea, pointing out that it was an hour's drive to almost any large grocery, movies or what have you.  She's right.  I'd dislike that immensely.  Nevertheless, it was a great place to walk around, and on our last day we made the trip to the grocery again, this time taking a slightly different route.  And we managed to find our way in the opposite direction from the grocery to Roy's restaurant, where the pod had all gone to eat and change plans on us on our first stay in Steinhatchee.

And, one last thing about the Steinhatchee channel.  On our way out after this second visit, with the tide just one-foot above mean, we followed an Islander 36 that was home-ported in Steinhatchee.  I'm sure it was a shoal-draft model which draws only 4'9", but it was most reassuring that the depths in the channel were ample.


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